Limited and Open Government

Big Brother Comes to Utah over COVID-19

Coronavirus has empowered technology companies to step up and play a large role in helping society adjust to the challenges of the virus. Many good things have happened, from drones doing medical deliveries to apps allowing for voluntary track and tracing, to empowering schools to continuing educating students in a non-traditional setting. The internet infrastructure in the United States has held strong despite the surge in usage, without needing to compromise quality unlike our European counterparts. Technology and technological innovation are one of the heroes of this virus thus far (along with nurses, researchers and hospital staff).

Just like with any crisis, though, government can leverage technology to abuse people’s rights. In China, a notoriously authoritarian regime, drones are being used to enforce lockdowns. Unfortunately, this kind of response has been adopted by other countries, including the United States. France is using drones to enforce and penalize people for violating their shutdown rules. The UK is uploading footage from the drone to their social media page to unapologetically socially shame people. Tennessee used location data of individuals released by a third party in the process of deciding whether or not to follow through with a stay at home order.

In the name of fighting COVID-19, numerous states have issued stay at home orders, arresting people who are violating them despite them expressing their fundamental, constitutionally guaranteed rights. And to aid these states, the FCC announced a reminder that the rules surrounding the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system to allow for sharing life-saving information about the coronavirus pandemic. The WEA system was originally established in 2012 to use geographically targeted text-like alerts to the public to inform them about dangerous weather, missing children, and other critical situations.

Utah is one of only eight states in the nation so far to not issue a stay at home order, and Governor Herbert should be applauded for resisting the pressure to lock down a state that has done a sufficient job thus far of self-enforcing social distancing and “flattening the curve.”

That being said, the Governor has also done some questionable things, most recently ordering a travel declaration requiring all adults traveling into Utah via car or plane to fill out a form related to COVID-19. This new order takes effect today, and it will ask travelers questions about whether they have been tested or have any symptoms of coronavirus, as well as where they have recently traveled. Utah is utilizing the WEA System to contact these travelers as they are entering Utah. The information people provide will be stored on a database (of questionable security) within the Utah Department of Health. 

Normally, declaration forms are reserved for international travelers coming into the country, so this seems like an unnecessary add-on with a highly questionable effectiveness. Early indications suggest that the state is not planning to “chase down cars” to enforce filling out the form, and that it is more of an honor system to raise awareness and try to mitigate COVID-19’s spread. One major problem here is that people lie (someone did just that in order to get to his wife at a hospital in New York). What will be the consequences for falsifying this government-mandated form?

The state’s form is hosted on an open website, where anyone can fill out the form. It will give the state murky data, making the whole endeavor a potential waste of time and divert precious resources. And it is fair to wonder to what length the government is willing to act against people who do not fill out the form, fill it out incorrectly, or flat out lie about their symptoms. For the people that are symptomatic, is the government going to mandate and enforce quarantine? The World Health Organization thinks it may very well come to that. 

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s administration is similarly using technology, using the health department to actively encourage people to snitch on their neighbors through an online form. This destructive act tears down the fabric of community trust that helps get through tough times like these. Overbearing intrusions of government should be seen as what not to do in the event of a disaster or pandemic. 

Technology has played a critical role in facilitating the response efforts to coronavirus around the globe. There are many positive things that have come out of this process with respect to private use and action of technology and technological innovation. However, we should not lose sight of how the government has used technology to our detriment during this time and look for ways to restrain the government from abusing it in the name of this and future crises.